by Minister of Information JR Valrey, Oakland Bureau Chief
It is Black theater season, and, from Dec. 4-18 at Marines’ Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter St. in San Francisco, the African-American Shakespeare Company is celebrating the 20th anniversary of putting “Cinderella” aka Black Cinderella on stage. Oakland native Devin Cunningham is making his directorial debut on this significant anniversary.
Devin Cunningham grew up on stage and has been immersed in theatrical drama for his whole life, so it is only becoming that he is able to tell such a classic story, not as an actor but as the director, directing the flow of the whole production. Earlier this year, white America went HAM (hard as a mother******) because racism did not want Disney to allow Ariel, the lead character in “The Little Mermaid,” to be Black, although the original stories of mermaids, aka njuzu, come from Zimbabwe and surrounding parts of Africa.
It is a new day, and Black theater is returning to its cultural prominence among our people, reminiscent of the days of the great playwrights like the late August Wilson, the late Amiri Baraka and the still working legend Ishmael Reed.
Check out the director of “Cinderella,” Devin Cunningham, as he discusses his recent promotion to director and as he describes history in theater in his own words.
JR Valrey: Can you tell us a little bit about the play you’re directing and what it’s about?
Devin Cunningham: I am directing African-American Shakespeare Company’s Cinderella. It is their 20th anniversary of the show! It is the company’s original take on the classic fairytale and it follows a nearly broken girl who overcomes her circumstances and obtains the life she’s always dreamed about.
JR Valrey: How does Black Cinderella differ from the story and production of white Cinderella?
Devin Cunningham: The major difference is employing Black dialect, AAVE. The script prior to my adaptation did a wonderful job employing our natural syntax. I took it a step further by making it more regional in speech and expression. Also, the style of singing and costumes aid in telling a uniquely Black fairytale.
JR Valrey: Can you tell us a little bit about the theater company that you’re working with on this production? How long have you been with them?
Devin Cunningham: African-American Shakespeare Company was founded in 1994 by Sherri Young and over the years has stood by their mission of “envisioning the classics with color.” As one of a few Black-owned theater companies in California, it primarily focuses on classical works like Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams while producing shows like “Echoes of Us,” a new monologue series, “For Colored Girls” by Ntozake Shange, and “Jitney” by August Wilson. I’ve worked with the company since 2016, originally playing one of the stepsisters in Cinderella. I’m grateful to have come from actor to director with this company.
JR Valrey: This Black Cinderella production will be your directorial debut. What is the story behind how you landed that? Why did you pick this play for your debut?
Devin Cunningham: I applied for a grant which allowed me to pick a project and a company to work with. I knew I wanted to work on this show because of its potential impact on the community. I wanted to reflect my own interpretation of a fairytale, one that would reflect the community that I’m from. Furthermore, I wanted to create a memorable and accessible experience for Black children.
JR Valrey: What is the difference in the mentality of a thespian on stage performing in a play versus being a director of a play working behind the scenes?
Devin Cunningham: Mentally, it’s a different level of decisiveness. Everything is a choice – from the staging, lights, costumes, actors, sounds, props etc. As an actor, your focus is the lines and the character. When you’re the director, it’s your artistic vision that can be executed. It’s a different kind of trust you have to adapt to work with all creative parties involved. You have to be willing to collaborate: Instead of focusing on self, I have to be present for all.
JR Valrey: When and how did you get into theater? What made you fall in love with theater?
Devin Cunningham: I was always in my school plays – I loved them! We did the same one everywhere; which is probably why I’ve done “Cinderella” multiple times. This was all throughout elementary and middle school. I didn’t take acting seriously or get bit by the theater bug for real until college.
The amount of truth I found on stage, especially in Black plays and stories, made me want to dig deeper into the art form and understand how we as a people have contributed to the stage. Also, theatre was the only subject I didn’t struggle in. Not that theater isn’t challenging, but I didn’t and still don’t mind doing the necessary work to develop into a better artist.
JR Valrey: Can you talk a little about the drama class that you created at the East Oakland Youth Development Center? What did you get out of theater arts as a youth?
Devin Cunningham: I don’t remember which year … I believe it was 2008. Myself and Jasmine Williams created a curriculum for a drama class. We had improv games, Shakespeare and other components that made theater fun and engaging. I would love to bring something back to the East Oakland Youth Development Center that focuses on Black drama.
As a kid, theater offered me a sense of freedom. You can be anything: president, chef, drag queen, bank teller, whatever. You can find yourself in another world if you only say “yes, and.”
JR Valrey: What is the importance of making your directorial debut in San Francisco? What is the significance of San Francisco in the theater world?
Devin Cunningham: San Francisco is the theater hub of the Bay Area. Ranging from new works from talented, local playwrights to shows fresh off Broadway, there is a wide array of art to experience. I’ve been working with this company for some years and I believe it is imperative to give back to those who have given to you.
JR Valrey: When is the play? Where? And how do people get tickets?
Devin Cunningham: Cinderella runs from Dec. 4 through 18, 2022, at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA. You call Cityboxoffice at 415-392-4400 or visit their website, https://www.cityboxoffice.com/default.asp.
JR Valrey: How can people keep up with you online?
Devin Cunningham: IG: devinnadriaan
Facebook: Devin Cunningham
JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook. Visit www.BlackNewWorldMedia.com to read more.